The Orthodox Pages
INSTRUCTIONS FOR JOINING
THE ORTHODOX CHURCH
But how does someone join and become one with Christ? Is it enough to say that I believe in Christ therefore I am saved? Christ Himself said: “Not every one that saith unto me Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven” (Matth. 7:21). Here the Lord is saying that not everyone who prays to me shall be saved precisely because prayer is not enough. The Gospels speak very clearly on what we must do to be saved. They are not only a historical account of Christ’s life on earth, but also His teaching in words and deeds, His commandments and His promise to all that follow Him. The New Testament is the instructions handbook for eternal life and all Christians would do well to continually read from it all their life, but for someone wishing to join Christ and His Church, it is the first step in coming to know what the Christian faith teaches. Christ Himself set the order of things after His Resurrection when He said to His disciples: “Go ye therefore and teach all nations, baptizing them in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost: teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you: and, lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the world. Amen” (Matth. 28: 19-20). You see that He says to His disciples to teach first and then to baptize. Again He says “He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved; but he that believeth not shall be damned” (Mark 16:16). For salvation then it is not enough to believe, one must also be baptized.
In the past the Orthodox Church was almost unknown in western societies and was considered by many almost exclusively as an eastern church, confined by cultural and geographical boundaries. The Bolshevik Revolution, which forced more that a million Russians into exile, the migration of hundreds of thousands of Greeks, Greek Cypriots, and on a smaller scale, peoples from other Slavonic countries, to western countries like France, England, Canada, America and Australia, has pulled down these boundary walls. Today the Orthodox Church has attained such dimensions as to make her presence a significant factor in the religious life of non-Orthodox countries. Certainly the Roman Catholic, Anglican and other Protestant Churches, have sat up and taken note of her continuous growth. Their own churches have seen an alarming decline in the number of their practicing members, so much so that they have been forced to close down and sell many of their churches. The Orthodox Church, on the other hand, can boast a religious revival and is continually building new churches to accommodate the needs of her growing numbers. One need only attend a normal Sunday service to see that the church pews are full. On special Feast days one would be contented to find standing space and on Good Friday and the Easter Vigil, one would have to attend 2 or 3 hours before the start of the service so as not to find oneself amongst the hundreds [with some parishes thousands] standing in the church courtyard.
In Orthodox countries, the Church plays a central role in the whole way of life. Deep rooted traditions; cultural events, the Church calendar and public holidays, all go hand in hand. The Church’s influence on one of her members begins on the day of his birth. The Priest is called to the family home [or the maternity clinic as is more common today] to pray for the newborn child and the speedy recovery of the mother. On the eighth day the child is taken for the first time to the Church [usually by the intended sponsor or a member of the family, but not the mother] where he is sealed with the sign of the Cross and officially receives his name, imitating thus, our Lord Jesus Christ, who on the eighth day after His birth, was taken to the Temple and duly circumcised according to the Jewish law which He Himself had given through our forefathers and the Prophets and had been observed from the time of Abraham. At this time He was given the name Jesus, the name announced to the most holy Virgin by the Archangel Gabriel (Luke 1: 31). On the fortieth day the child is again brought to the Temple by the mother, who having fulfilled the forty days of purification according to the Law of Moses, is again accounted worthy to enter the Holy Temple. The child at this time is presented to be churched, that is, to begin attending Church. From the day the child enters the world he is considered a candidate for Baptism and full membership of the Church, but on the fortieth day the Church officially emphasises this with the following prayer: The Priest having asked the Lord to bless the infant, continues, “So that, accounted worthy of Holy baptism, he may obtain the portion of Thine Elect of the kingdom”. And again, “and account it [the infant] worthy, at the fitting time, to be born again of water and Spirit”.
The day of Baptism is decided by the parents and the sponsor and in practice is usually before the child’s first birthday. At Baptism he will also receive the Sacraments of Holy Chrism [Confirmation] and Holy Communion, thus, on that one day, he is received into the Church as a full member. From henceforth his association with the Church largely depends upon his parents. If they are regular attendants of the Divine Liturgy, he will receive Holy Communion at every occasion and will grow up feeling that the Church is an extension of his own home. If on the other hand their attendance is sporadic, his closeness to the Church will very much depend on the quality of spiritual life at home, religious education at school and catechism classes run by the Church in most communities. Even if the influence of spiritual matters is of the minimum, he will still grow up attending Church on the Great Feasts like Christmas, Easter, Pentecost and the Dormition of the Mother of God. As an adult, it would be almost unthinkable for him to not get married in the Orthodox Church or to baptize his children into any other church.
What has been said so far is the “norm” for someone born into the Orthodox faith, in other words, for someone who is Orthodox by descent because his parents were. In recent years the Orthodox Church has seen a flow of requests from adults wishing to join her flock from other Christian denominations and non-Christians. Of these, we can place all converts into one of five categories:
1) The offspring of mixed marriages where it was decided to let the children grow up and decide for themselves which religion or which church they would prefer to join.
2) Descendants of an Orthodox nation where the Church was persecuted by a communist state committed by its fundamental principles to an aggressive and militant atheism. Such was the communist government of Bolshevik Russia after they seized power in 1917. They were not satisfied merely with a separation of Church and State, but sought either by direct or indirect means to overthrow all organized church life and to extirpate all religious belief. As a result, millions of Russians remained unbaptized. Today the Russian people are once again free to express their religious beliefs and are returning to the Church to be baptized, thus reclaiming their rightful heritage as God’s children.
3) By conviction, in other words, they have, through enlightenment, come to the belief that the Orthodox Church is the One True Catholic and Apostolic Church of Christ.
4) For marriage sake – because their intended partner in marriage is Orthodox and as an act of love for their partner, or to please his/her parents, is willing to renounce his/her own faith and join the Orthodox Church.
5) “For employment”. This fifth category again involves the Sacrament of Marriage, but its sole purpose is to secure a residence and work permit. Cyprus in recent years has seen an influx of foreign workers. Of these, the only worrying group is the male workers who come from Islamic countries. After the terms of their work permits have expired and not wanting to return to the unemployment or the poor pay conditions in their own countries, they develop romantic relations with an unsuspecting Cypriot girl. In due course, the Arab male accepts Baptism and Marriage in the Orthodox Church and thus receives his residence permit. Of course they can obtain their permit with a civil marriage, but most Cypriots, staying true to their upbringing in the Church, do not recognize civil weddings, but consider them equivalent to an engagement. It is not our intention to generalize for indeed there are isolated cases where entry into the Orthodox Church has been by conviction. What the Church finds most disturbing is the group who after having accumulated their savings, return again to their country of origin, abandoning wife and sometimes children. Once in their country and in fear of their life, they would not dare make it known that they had, for a short time, renounced their Islamic heritage. They embrace Islam and remarry. Their short-lived life as a Christian has served its purpose and very quickly forgotten, as are the wife and children who no longer receive recognition.
From the above categories it is clear that except those joining the Orthodox Church through conviction; all the other candidates need some form of formal instruction in the faith so that they do not take Baptism superficially. In Cyprus, the Church embraces all applicants for Baptism, but requires that all adult Baptisms must be preceded by pre-baptismal instructions (catechism), whereby the candidate is made fully aware that he freely accepts, understands and embraces the teachings of the One True, Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church, and renounces all other faiths. For this purpose, the Church has assigned appropriate priests who can give baptismal instructions in various languages. The instructions are by no means comprehensive, but very basic which can be given in a few lessons. Someone may feel that this is a burden on the candidate, but in truth, the instructions are of the most minimal that the Church barely escapes being accused of treating the Christian Sacraments trivially. Baptismal instructions are not something new to the present day Church. In the early Church, when adult Baptism was still the normal custom, it was not unusual for the entire time of preparation to last two or three years. Preparation was usually in two parts. The first involved those making a remote preparation and were obliged to attend the sermons and the catechism classes. Having been through this preparation, they were then admitted as direct candidates for baptism with a more intense period of training in Christian morals and the Mysteries. For St. John Chrysostom, a great teacher and father of the fourth century, this second period was a total of thirty days. In his discourses on Baptism, St John Chrysostom says the following concerning the thirty days period:
“Yet thirty days and the King of heaven will restore you to your true country above, to the free Jerusalem, to the City in Heaven”.
Again to stress the importance of this period of instructions he says:
“So also for you, these thirty days are like the practice and bodily exercises in some wrestling school. Let us learn during these days how we may gain the advantage over that wicked demon. After Baptism we are going to strip for combat against him; he will be our opponent in the boxing bout and the fight. Let us learn, during this time of training, the grips he uses, the source of his wickedness, and how he can easily hurt us. Then, when the contest comes, we will not be caught unaware nor be frightened, because we have practiced among ourselves and have learned all his artifices, we will confidently join grips with him in the combat”.
As has already been mentioned, all candidates should have some form of instruction in the faith before being baptized. Changing religion or church is something that should not be taken lightly and should only be carried out after the candidate is fully aware of the teachings of the Orthodox Church and the differences that exist between the Orthodox Church and other Christian churches. After instruction the candidate should examine carefully all that he has been taught and when he can say that he believes with all his heart and being that the Orthodox Church is the One True Catholic and Apostolic Church of Christ, only then should he contemplate Baptism. Below we have listed very briefly some of the Orthodox Doctrines and the differences with other Christian churches.